Scientists have built a robotic stingray and, like anyone putting together something for the first time, they used whatever they had at hand. In this case, they used a gold skeleton surrounded and powered by layers of heart cells from a rat. When blue light is shined on the ray, it contracts and moves.
What’s the point of building artificial animals? Is this just a case of scientists playing God? Well, not exactly. There’s a real medical concept being tested here. If Kevin Kit Parker, a bioengineering professor at Harvard University, can create artificial animals that move on their own, he and his team can one day create artificial organs that do the same. It’s a step toward being able to build a human heart.
The artificial animal isn’t aimless, either. It’s controlled via light stimulation. When the light guiding it is altered in specific ways, the ray shifts and maneuvers. They’ve designed an obstacle course for it to beat and it’s done so with help from its “laser guidance.” Again, this may sound like scientists going off the deep end. Yet if cells and muscles can be controlled in a finite, nuanced manner, then one day a self-sustaining organ can be built to do the same. It’s a field called soft robotics.
Parker first got the idea when visiting the aquarium with his daughter. She tried to pet a stingray and it evaded her touch. Rays are very nimble animals, turning on a dime. When Parker saw the ripple of muscle across the body of the stingray, it reminded him of the muscle that covers a heart’s surface. He began thinking he could build something similar. Of course, Parker’s ray is much smaller – only about the size of a penny. At just over 10 milligrams, it still holds 200,000 live heart cells.
Obstacle courses may not translate directly into managing a human being’s circulation 24-7, but at this point they’re testing proof-of-concept. They have built an artificial animal that possesses a strong structure and moves by creating a ripple through the heart cells from a real animal. They’ve been able to make it react in very specific ways to very specific stimuli. It’s a big step toward making an artificial organ that can react as a real organ does: reacting to stimuli that produce specific results.
This isn’t the only artificial animal Parker’s created. Before this, he built a synthetic jellyfish out of rat heart cells and a silicone cup. When the heart cells were stimulated, they would press in, contracting the cup and jetting the artificial jellyfish around the tank. What Parker’s team lacked with the jellyfish was control over the muscle; they couldn’t direct where it was headed. With the ray, they’ve corrected that. Eliciting specific reactions from the cells that allowed genuine control over them was the next step.
Now that Parker and his team have accomplished that, what’s the future for the artificial ray? Well, there isn’t much of one. Now that they know it works, they have to push new, more complex boundaries. Each new animal will be another proof-of-concept, developing another trait that is needed to eventually create artificial organs. As Parker told The Guardian about his ray, “It’s like a work of art. You make it and then abandon it for ever. We’re moving on to the next one.” He may abandon it forever, but one day this little ray could be the science that stops human beings who need organ replacements from being abandoned forever.
What do you think about bioengineering artificial animals? Do you think we can achieve a world where patients in need of organs will receive artificial ones rather than hoping a donor turns up?